My Days with Ma Bell

 

Name dropping and learning lessons

One day, back in the late 80s, when I was working at AT&T Bell Labs/AT&T Microelectronics in Allentown, I received an interoffice package from Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ. Upon opening it, I was pleasantly surprised to see a red T-Shirt. Across the front were several “3K” symbols and among them were these words:

This is the way the world began

Not with a whimper but with a bang!

There was a letter of congratulations included in the package from Arno Penzias, who was the Vice President of Bell Labs then. I was thrilled to bits! I had not even heard of Arno Penzias at that time. It was a huge organization and he was not in my direct line of command. Well, it turns out that I had gone out of my way to test out a hardware accelerator that was developed in Murray Hill, for a real customer design, and somehow, it went to Arno’s attention. When I talked with other colleagues and friends, I found out that Arno was actually a Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1978, for his discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (along with Robert Wilson), which helped establish the Big Bang Theory of Cosmology. It seems that the “3K” on the T-Shirt represents the “3-degrees-above-zero-Kelvin” background radiation that Arno and Robert had detected. I was told that the T-shirt and letter were Arno’s way of encouraging engineers to stretch themselves and come up with innovative ideas/solutions. I truly did not think that my little test for the accelerator deserved such a high honor! In any case, I was on cloud nine and it did impress my wife (for a few days)! 😊  I never actually wore the T-Shirt and just saved it along with the letter as mementos. 

TShirt

 

After several years, when my daughter Ramya was in middle school, she came across this T-Shirt. She was quite impressed by the story behind it and wanted  to wear it to school. Sure, why not, I said! It looked perfect on her with the blue jeans! I wish we had a keepsake photo of that moment. That evening at the dinner table, Ramya mentioned about a strange reaction that one of her friends had to the message on the T-shirt! It seems the friend read it, scowled at her and said “That is against my beliefs”! Ramya was shocked and puzzled… and frankly, so was I! We had not thought much about any “hidden implications” of the lines. We were just feeling proud that it was a gift from a Nobel laureate about his research and were more than happy to show-off!! Upon digging deeper, we realized that some people oppose or disagree with “The Big Bang Theory”, based on their particular religious teachings. It certainly was a learning moment for us. Well… guess what? This is middle school, and you get to learn in the hallways, cafeteria and playground as much as you learn in the classroom! BTW, much later, I researched into the lines on the T-Shirt and found out that these were derived from T.S.Eliot’s poem from 1925 -“The Hollow Men”, which ends with :

This is the way the world will end

Not with a bang but with a whimper

Last week, after a frantic search throughout the house (specifically for this blog entry), I came to the unfortunate realization that I might have lost/misplaced the T-Shirt and the letter! Considering that I am a nostalgia buff and have treasured such keepsakes from my past ( for e.g, my favorite R.K.Narayan photos and memorabilia), I am very upset that I lost these! I am hoping that my wife will magically locate them (just as she has done so in the past)!

Orlando Magic!

A visit to Orlando and Disney Theme Parks is a must-do rite of passage, especially for families with children. Our family has very fond memories of the three trips that we had to Orlando in general and Disney Parks in particular. Of all the parks, my #1 favorite is Epcot. This “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” (EPCOT Center) made an indelible impression on me the very first time we went in 1990. The jaw-dropping rides were thoroughly entertaining and informative at the same time!! While initially I complained about the cost of entrance being so exorbitant ($25 per person per day in 1990), at the end of the day, I conceded that it was totally worth it!

When my friends at work found out that I was headed to Orlando, they told me that the main attraction at EPCOT was a ride called “The story of communications” in the iconic Spaceship Earth, which was an amazing and imposing structure! It is a Geodesic dome (the first of its kind),  which is composed of a complex network of triangles. My colleagues told me that this ride was sponsored and hosted by AT&T! They said that, as employees, we get to use the reception center associated with the ride. That sounded like a wonderful employee benefit! I didn’t quite realize how cool this benefit was till we actually got there.

 On that day, the lines for Spaceship Earth were up to ~90 mins long! I walked up to the Disney employee there and flashed my AT&T badge and she directed us to the private reception entrance for AT&T employees. There the secretary took us to a cozy reception area and asked us to relax, help ourselves to the snacks and drinks and let her know when we were ready for the ride! Wow! That was royal treatment. My family was thoroughly impressed! After soaking in the warmth of the welcoming reception and resting for a bit, the lady took us through a secret employee entrance to the front of the ride. It was all coordinated in such a subtle way that others in the line would not get a hint that someone was being given a preferential treatment. Even though it is an employee benefit  and a privilege, I can understand if others who stood in line for over hour and half would be upset, jealous and resentful! This reminded me of the folks in India with money, power and/or powerful connections, who bypass long queues at temples! I do remember the feeling of pride and joy at being given this special attention and at the same time it was also laced with a tinge of guilt every time we took advantage of this benefit. I get the same feeling whenever I am randomly picked to get “TSA PreCheck” at U.S airports, and I get to bypass a long line of travelers! The Spaceship Earth ride, which was narrated by Walter Cronkite (Journalist and CBS news anchorman) was very educational and exhilarating!

Indelible memories of EPCOT and Universal Studios

We did this ride (with separate family groups) several times in the 1990’s. While in Orlando, during one of these trips, we covered the Universal Studios tour as well, which is another fun filled adventure (especially for a movie buff like me!).  The “ET Adventure”, which is based on Steven Spielberg’s movie was a hugely popular ride in Universal Studios when we visited in 1996. Similar to the Spaceship Earth, this was also one of the rides that is sponsored by AT&T. It made sense – as the main focus towards the end of the movie is ET desperately trying to “Phone home”.. to communicate with it’s alien family. Even here AT&T employees had the same reception benefits as EPCOT. Unfortunately, just a few months earlier, my division of AT&T Microelectronics was spun off and became Lucent Technologies and that meant I did not have an AT&T badge! 😦 I approached the receptionist, showed my Lucent badge and explained the situation! She understood and said that we would still be covered as ex-AT&T employees till the end of the year! Yipee! That was sweet! We were thrilled that we could draw from that well of hospitality for one last time! We left the ride with fond memories that will last a lifetime and we thanked AT&T Pioneers for their warmth and hospitality!

Glimpses of the future

Airport Square in Lansdale was your average American strip mall. The AT&T Store was next to ToysRUs, which was adjacent to Borders bookstore (sadly, both of these are no more). From the corner of my eyes, I could see the sales lady sizing me up! I am sure she assumed that I was up to no good!  I was checking out the display case from all angles, and was probably drooling too, like a dog at an out-of-reach buffet table!

She approached me and said “Anything I can help you with?”.

I pointed to the case that contained AT&T’s leading edge communications marvel  called the AT&T EO Communicator and said, “How many of these have you sold”!

That’s not a typical question from a typical customer!

Looking at her puzzled face, I said – “I am sorry.. I should explain.. I also work for AT&T. In the Microelectronics division, up in Lehigh Valley. We designed the main chips that go into this cool gadget”

“Oh.. that is awesome!” she said, as she let her guard down, once she realized that I was not a weirdo or a potential shop-lifter, but just another colleague!

“So… have you sold any? How about other locations? Can you check how the sales are overall?”

She lowered her voice and said, “No .. no sales at all here. Just some people who saw the cool commercials on TV and have come in to stare at it! I think it’s too expensive. Who in their right mind would put down $2000 for a toy like this?”

I was disappointed. This was the first time a product which contained one of our chips was in  retail stores. I had worked on one of the 4 main AT&T chips that formed the brain of this phablet (Phone + Tablet). This final product was a collaboration of several groups and organizations (AT&T, EO, General Magic etc..).

AT&T’s version of an IPAD (circa 1993) (photos courtesy – oldcomputers.net)

In the following weeks I made several trips to the store and even brought my family over a few times. If it were 2018, I would have taken several selfies with the display pieces and proudly uploaded to Facebook and bragged about what a genius engineer I was! 😊 Well, this was 1993 and way before Iphones or Facebook and even Internet (of the kind that we are used to)!

AT&T Bell Labs was, as usual, way ahead of its time! This communicator with its futuristic promise was at least 15 years ahead of Apple’s Ipad. It was a contemporary of Apple’s PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) Newton and was much more advanced in terms of it’s communication capabilities. The TV commercial that promoted this communicator, clearly shows how futuristic this design was for 1993!

AT&T Bell labs has contributed immensely to the world of science, engineering, and overall technological advancement. To date, there are 15 Nobel prize winners from Bell Labs. There are inventions that came out of Bell labs, which touch us all every day in some form or the other. For e.g., : Transistors, Laser, Solar Cells, Cellphone Technology, Communication Satellites, Radio Astronomy, evidence of Big Bang, Unix operating system, C and C++ are just a small sample of their key contributions. Twenty five years ago, AT&T had a crystal clear vision of the world that we have today! Check out the “You Will” series of television ads they ran back then predicting what’s to come! While several other companies eventually made these predictions into realities, a lot of the building blocks did come from the work done at AT&T. 

While the work I had done was not remotely in the same league as all the fundamental research done at AT&T locations in Murray Hill and Holmdel, New Jersey, I thoroughly enjoyed and am proud of the opportunities that I had as part of AT&T Microelectronics to work on leading edge chips while learning and collaborating with the best in the industry.

Epilogue

When I was getting ready to move from Iowa to Allentown in 1988, to join AT&T Bell Labs, my co-workers tried to paint a bleak picture of Allentown by playing Billy Joel’s song (“Allentown”). Thankfully, I had never heard of Billy Joel or his song back then, so I ignored them. Today (4/3/2020), after 32 years in Allentown and working for : AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies, PMC Sierra, Agere Systems, LSI, Avago and Broadcom, it’s time for me to get off the bus. My stop has come. It was a wonderful journey where I had the opportunity to work with (and learn from) a great group of professionals and friends, and in the process created 32 years worth of nostalgia (to be used for future blog posts 🙂  )

Around the World (11 times) in 465 Days!

Carpool Tunnel Syndrome

It was our typical 37 mile drive home from work. There I was… navigating the trusted Honda Accord through Coopersburg (trying very hard not get a speeding ticket) as the speed limit suddenly drops down to 35 mph from the usual 55 mph on RT 309,  with my car pool buddies (and co-workers)!

My Vietnamese colleague Quan was describing the intricacies of a biasing circuit he was working on for a memory design (his specialty) when all of a sudden he goes  “Guess what?? Jumbo shrimp on sale for 2.99/lbs. at Shoprite!” This was way before high speed internet and smart phones!  In fact, he did not need any of these… he had all the available best deals in his head magically and like flipping through a Rolodex – he would just land on the right deal for the moment!

The other colleague Mike, a Virginia native and a fellow chip designer, says “My group went to that Indian Buffet place for lunch today! Their Baarfi is too good! Do you guys make Baarfi at home?” “I want to learn how to make Baarfi..” he said with a wink. I could tell he was relishing saying “Baarfi” over and over again. I played along “Sure Mike.. I love Baarfi too!”

Me .. “Guess what?  Today Monica Lewinsky turned 28!  It seemed like just yesterday she was crawling around on the floor in the Oval Office.”   I was the true environmentalist in the car – ‘cos I was the one who was always recycling previous night’s jokes (from TV’s Late Night Comedy shows)!

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Commuters R Us!

In 1990 when Uma started her Medical Residency in Philadelphia, we moved from Allentown to Lansdale so that it would be equidistant to both of our work locations. The plan at that time was that we would move back in 4 years after the completion of her Residency. Since then, a lot of things changed in our lives as well as the world around us – but my commute to Allentown remained essentially the same!

Allentown is in the Lehigh Valley along with its twin city of Bethlehem. Most people may not know that Allentown was the place where world’s first solid-state  transistor (which paved the way to the computer and Internet revolution) was fabricated by Bell Labs Engineers Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen. Bethlehem used to be the home of Bethlehem Steel – which had a long history and provided steel for Golden Gate, George Washington and Verrazano Narrow bridges, Hoover Dam along with other major projects.  Allentown was also made famous by Billy Joel with his song “Allentown” – which depicted (quite negatively) the life of the Lehigh Valley area after the demise of the steel industry in the area!

Lansdale area is essentially a northern suburb of Philadelphia with commuter trains to Philadelphia and several large pharmaceutical industries within short driving distances. Back when we moved there, it had a modest Indian community – but we still had to make weekly pilgrimages to Edison, New Jersey, for Indian groceries and restaurants. Now we have several large Indian grocery stores and restaurants (even a Hyderabadi one!) within a few miles from my house supported by the large Indian/Bangladeshi population in the area.

Earlier, I said that my commute remained essentially the same over the years. But, that is only partly true. Yes… the distance remained the same – a round trip of about 75 miles! But over the years a lot has changed along the way – corn fields turned into massive shopping centers with huge parking lots.  I wish I had a time lapse video that showed the rapidly changing landscape: from countryside and cornfield to huge shopping centers with acres and acres of asphalt parking lots. Because of all this development, the total number of traffic lights that I now pass through quadrupled  (compared to 1990) – thereby adding to the commute time.

In 1990 – George Bush (senior) was the president and gas was 75c a gallon and Saddam Hussein had grand plans to increase territory by annexing Kuwait. I used to work for AT&T Bell Labs and had a company cell phone that was as big and as heavy as a brick. In order to make calls, I had to pull out its antenna and balance with both hands!

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Descent into the Lehigh Valley

During the early years of the commute, I used to listen to a lot of music – Hindi and Telugu songs as well as a variety of classical music on cassette tapes. Later I added talk radio to my repertoire. There was a financial adviser that I used to avidly listen to.. Once I even called his show and managed to get through. I explained my situation and asked him if I should buy a house (or rent) in Lansdale for a period of 4 years. He said that it did not make any sense to buy for such a short period of time! So… we went ahead and bought the house anyway! And lived in it for 14 years!

After a few years of driving alone, I came across others at work that happened to be doing the same commute. It made perfect sense to carpool with these guys.  Over the years I carpooled with 5 other guys in different combinations. Two of them were Indian, one who grew up in Virginia, who it turns out lived only 2 blocks from my house and 2 Vietnamese guys. Even today, I still carpool with one of my co-workers. Carpooling worked out great for all of us. It saved a lot of money on gas (more on this later). At times we took turns to take a nap if we had worked late previous night and needed to catch up on sleep. Politics and religion are generally considered a no-no in carpools, but in our rides these came up all the time and since we were polar opposites on political topics – we’ve had some very fiery and spirited debates. It certainly helped liven up the boring commute!

Typical Pennsylvania Row Houses in Bethlehem

Overall – carpooling worked because we were all very flexible. There were a couple of instances when halfway through our drive I thought that I had left the iron ON in my house – and that we needed to turn back or the house would burn down or another time when I had left the garage door open and I would be robbed of all my treasures if we didn’t turn back immediately!  My friends were very understanding and turned back even if it meant an additional hour and half of commute that day! We were all fairly reasonable drivers and a testimony to that fact is that we never had any accidents or speeding tickets in these past 24 years (on the commute). Outside of the commute it’s a different story – and probably a subject for another blog and another day!

Talk radio was our constant companion and it was mostly local talk shows in the early days that covered about Philadelphia specific topics. Later these evolved into national syndicated talk shows mostly dominated by right wing personalities who knew just the “right” things to say to keep the masses fired up about “gun control”, “the war on Christmas”, “the liberal agenda” or “the corrupting influence of  the Hollywood elites” etc.

Transitions

I have driven through the presidencies of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Obama. During these years the gas price ranged from 75c to $3.67 per gallon. In these 24 years my employers changed from AT&T Bell Labs to Lucent to Agere to LSI to Avago (plus a mini detour of 3 years to PMC Sierra – also in the Lehigh Valley area)! The drive itself is a vibrant mix of urban and rural landscapes. We drive by the usual box stores and fast food places – Walmart, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, BestBuy etc in Quakertown followed by  lush greenery on both sides of Rt 309 for miles. Past Coopersburg, we drive by small roadside stands of home grown fruits and vegetables as well as “The Little Red Honey Stand”. This is a self-serve stand where there would be bottles of fresh honey along with a box to deposit the money in. Here’s a perfect  example of honor system at it’s best! 

The Little Red Honey Stand (click to enlarge)

In terms of numbers..

The other day on our drive home – I reminisced about my commuting experiences. What amazed me were the numbers! Yes… If we boiled it all down to just numbers – we are talking about 283518 miles driven for work. If there was a way to circumnavigate the Earth with my Honda Accord – I would have covered this more than 11 times with these 283518 miles! I could have easily driven to the moon and a third of the way back with these kind of miles! Want more such analogies? I could have driven 50 round trips from New York to LA!! I calculated that we had spent $17000 in gas for our commute (remember… even till late 2002 the gas price was less than one dollar per gallon). I estimated that I had spent 11172 hours on the road – which is about 465 days that was spent driving to and from Allentown!!

Much more than the numbers…

I ran into Quan the other day after several years. He is now retired and he has sharpened his skills about amazing deals to a whole different level. He told me about an airline credit card which actually “pays you to stay at the hotel in Paris after you get there on business class for free!!” In turn, I told him that I learned I can write off my hair loss and the resulting loss of self-esteem in my taxes! He has over 15 credit cards and got free money from all of them for limited period which he turned around and invested in CDs or even stock and made a lot of money! I always felt (and still feel) like a total beginner when it came to finance and other money matters compared to all of my car pool partners. I lost touch with Mike but recently found out that he is still in the area and works for a start-up chip company. I plan to look him up and re-connect with him. Over the years, I found that the car pool partners were also good sparring partners on all sorts of uncomfortable topics (usually during election times) – but we all got along quite well and remained good friends over these 24 years.  Our families became good friends and we even had  “Annual Carpool Family Picnics” for a few years and used to keep track of the progress of our kids through school and college. I have to locate Sanjay, Ravi and Mike and plan a “Reunion of the Carpool guys” along with Quan and Thien… like “Seinfeld” and “The Wonder Years” reunion shows!  Might even do a road trip up and down Rt 309 for old time’s sake!